In Search Of A Good Dam On The Mekong

Plans to harness hydropower potential in the Lower Mekong Basin for the first time has led to a search for a good dam.

AsianScientist (Dec. 4, 2012) – Plans to harness hydropower potential in the Lower Mekong Basin for the first time has led to a search for a good dam.

This is the issue that some 200 scientists, development experts, policy makers, and representatives from the hydropower sector wanted to resolve when they participated in last month’s Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy held in Hanoi, Vietnam and organized by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF).

The consensus of the two day (November 13-14) forum is that the Mekong River is still poorly understood and more research is needed to know the impact of building dams in the Lower Mekong.

A good dam – according Shi Guoqing, director of the National Research Center for Resettlement in Hohai University in Nanjing, China – has several components.

In an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Shi said a “good dam” has to be technically safe (a product of high quality construction) and financially sustainable, offering economic benefits not only to the dam operator but to the society as a while.

Shi added that a good dam must be able to mitigate its possible impact on the environment, and be considerate of local communities that will be affected by dam construction by providing them with alternative homes and livelihoods.

Scientists and experts who participated in the forum noted that in the case of the Lower Mekong, more studies are needed to produce a good dam. This dam will provide sustainable hydropower – a resource that will power the growing economies of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but should not be built at the expense of food security, natural environment, and livelihoods.

The Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia, winding 4,909 km through three provinces of southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. There are now dams that exist in China along the Upper Mekong Basin, but it is only now that dams are also being constructed in Lower Mekong which passes through four riparian countries.

Decisions regarding the Mekong River are also a challenge for researchers, scientists, and policy makers as these countries have competing interests.

“The (decision) on how can we best use of Mekong River is not easy to make because everybody has different ideas and different interests,” said Naho Mirumachi, lecturer on geography at King’s College London and long term Mekong River researcher.

Indeed, this dilemma is best exemplified by the current debate over the construction of the US$3.5 billion Xayaburi dam, the first of the eleven dams slated to be built in the main stem of the Lower Mekong.

“We (tend to) look at Xayaburi dam in isolation but if we build one dam in dam in the (Lower) Mekong (Basin) were opening the gate for building many other dams,” said Sokhem Pech, senior environmental governance specialist for the Hatfield Group, a Vancouver-based environmental consultancy firm.

And herein lies the problem with Xayaburi dam – or any dams that will be constructed in the Lower Mekong.

Vietnam and Cambodia are urging Laos to study the transboundary impacts of the dam before Xayaburi’s construction pushes through. They have also called on Laos to observe an agreement forged in December 2011 by the Mekong River Commission which is to wait for further studies on the impact of dams on the lower Mekong.

Environmentalists have also criticized the project, saying it threatens biodiversity, fish stocks, and the livelihoods of 60 million people who directly rely on the Mekong River.

But Xayaburi, which is expected to be completed by 2019, is likely to bring much needed revenue for Laos, who will export the hydroelectricity to Thailand. So despite criticisms over Xayaburi, Laos decided to go ahead with its construction. Lao Deputy Minister for Energy and Mining Viraphonh Viravong led a groundbreaking ceremony on November 7 to commence the construction of the dam.

The Lower Mekong River (Photo: Ian Taylor/CPWF).

Despite the heated debate over Xayaburi and the fate of the Lower Mekong, Wu Yusong, coordinator for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) China Upper Mekong Program, believes that it is still possible to build a dam that will be acceptable to stakeholders.

“We shall have a good dam in the Mekong,” Wu said. She cited WWF’s work conducting research and policy advocacy to promote green hydropower in Lancang – the upper half of the Mekong River.

Wu said that the WWF met with local officials and hydropower industry representatives to promote the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP). The tool, co-developed by the WWF, will help mitigate the dam’s impact by protecting the physical integrity of rivers and wildlife habitats in the Upper Mekong basin. Wu said that the WWF is also introducing this tool to other Mekong countries.

Wu said that to understand the issues in the Mekong, stakeholders need to share their information on good practices “not only in engineering, but also on environmental and social practice.”


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Ian Taylor/CPWF.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Prime Sarmiento is a Manila-based travel and science journalist. She specializes in reporting on health, environment and agriculture in Southeast Asia.

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